One question on multiple choice exams

In the last few weeks, the pages of this paper and the halls of the university have been filled with chatter about exams. Aside from the usual anxiety-ridden conversations, exchanges of notes, and so on this has taken a new turn. Students and lecturers alike are discussing the value of adding more open-choice questions to exams based on the experience of taking exams during lockdown.

To this end, one of my past Professors wrote an op-ed in this paper last week defending the humble MCQ from the battering it has taken in recent weeks. Indeed, I agree with Professor Meijer regarding the reliability and efficiency of MCQ based exams; it would be hard not to. There’s no doubt MCQs measure knowledge well and are both time and cost efficient for everyone involved.

However, while conceding some exceptions, his defence glosses over a question of validity for MCQ only exams (validity being a way to quantify if a test measures what it’s supposed to). The question is not really if MCQs work, because they do, but if the amount of MCQ only exams we receive is the best approach to measure all the knowledge we gain from various classes during our time here.

As Prof Meijer points out in situations where an examiner seeks to evaluate a students’ writing skills or their creative capabilities open-choice questions are an excellent tool. But the use of an open-choice question can go well beyond testing simply these two capabilities. 

A lecturer on my undergraduate degree always ended his exam papers with this same question

The greatest example of this comes from a lecturer on my undergraduate degree who always ended his exam papers with the same question. No matter the topic the paper ended with ‘In one hundred words or less, talk about something from this course which you found valuable which you haven’t yet had the opportunity to address on this exam’. MCQ or not you could be assured it would come up.

Now, while that question only carried five marks out of the total for the paper, it was always excellent to see as a student. It meant I could display my knowledge on some element of the course I enjoyed and it motivated me to study the finer details of the course as I knew there was always a question where they would be relevant, no matter what.

So, keeping tests efficient in both cost and time are vital, but a little bit of outside the box thinking on open-choice questions could help the university test students’ knowledge better, thus increasing exam validity, while adding little time to the grading process.

Isn’t that fascinating?



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